Wandering buskers and topless sunbathers take Ocean City to court

From inhaling buckets of Thrasher’s fries and Fisher’s popcorn to drinking at the naughtily named bars, letting loose nutritionally and otherwise is part of going to Ocean City every summer.

But even Maryland’s favorite resort town has to draw the line somewhere. And it’s apparently this side of profane language, bare breasts and unfettered busking.

“We’re always cognizant of our image, and we want to protect our image,” longtime Mayor Rick Meehan said. “We have something worth protecting.”

As another beach season gets underway, Ocean City is fighting in court and elsewhere to maintain its vision of itself as a family-friendly destination. And indeed, despite the randy T-shirts sold in souvenir shops and the boozy nightlife, it remains the place where parents bring kids who will grow up to become parents who bring kids to ride the giant Ferris wheel, play in the video arcades and, of course, splash in ocean.

In other words, what Ocean City really is selling is shared memories, largely unchanged through the generations.

Guarding that legacy has kept town officials busy in recent years. In 2014, they posted signs urging, ”No profanity, please. Be courteous,” on the boardwalk.

The following year, smoking was banned on the boardwalk and confined to designated areas of the beach.

The city is also defending itself in two federal suits. In one, a group of women argue it’s discriminatory that only men are allowed to go topless. In the other, street entertainers claim rules that limit where and when they can perform on the boardwalk violates their right to free expression.

The musicians, artists, puppeteers and other performers won the bulk of their case earlier this month, when U.S. District Judge Richard D. Bennett ruled that an ordinance requiring that they enter a lottery for a specific, marked-off space on the boardwalk and banning signage and advertising infringed on their constitutional rights. Bennett allowed other parts of the ordinance to remain, including a ban on boardwalk performances after 1 a.m.

Still pending is the suit filed by Chelsea Eline of Salisbury and four other women against an emergency ordinance that the city council passed last June. It bans public nudity, which it defines as including bare female breasts.

The brouhaha began several years ago when Eline, a top freedom activist who runs a blog called “Breasts Are Healthy,” sought to clarify town policy on bare-chestedness. Officials sought an opinion from the Office of the Maryland Attorney General. While they waited for it, the OC Beach Patrol instructed its staff to file a “minor incident report” if anyone complained about a topless woman in their midst — but not to actually approach the woman.

The directive inspired a flurry of chatter online that Ocean City was now a topless beach, much to the dismay of city officials. The Town Council hastily convened a meeting on June 10, a Saturday, to enact an emergency ordinance banning public nudity, including “the showing of the female breast with less than a fully opaque covering of any part of the nipple.”

Several days later, the attorney general’s office sent a letter to the city, saying that some courts have found that because men and women have different bodies, restricting the latter from exposing their breasts did not violate the Constitution. But the office cautioned that public opinion of what constitutes indecency can change, quickly and under different contexts.

Eline says in her lawsuit that until the 1930s it was illegal for men to appear topless in public, but protests eventually led to men winning the right to unleash their torsos and, “it is now considered normal for males to appear bare-chested in public, and the act is associated with power, strength and freedom.”

Neither Eline nor her attorneys responded to requests for comment. The plaintiffs seek to overturn the ordinance, saying it violates the constitutional guarantee to equal protection under the law. By banning only women from going topless, they argue, the ordinance promotes the sexual objectificaton of women.

Until there is a ruling, the message from the town is: pack that bikini top if you’re headed here.

“Our position is Ocean City is not a topless beach and will not become a topless beach,” Meehan said.

Longtime business owners say they want to keep the town and especially its boardwalk pleasant for visitors.

“It’s a diamond of Ocean City,” said Joe Kro-Art, a gallery owner. “It needs to be treasured.”

Kro-Art — he began spelling his name that way because people kept mispronouncing it with one rather than two syllables — has owned Ocean Gallery on the boardwalk at 2nd Street for about five decades. He praises town officials for trying to get a grip on boardwalk activities.

“Every situtation needs some controls,” Kro-Art said. “That’s why we have driver’s licenses.”

Kro-Art is all for artistic expression, and indeed, his gallery is a riot of signs, colors and lights. It can best be described as neo-scavenger: brightly painted pieces of other buildings — pipes, fencing, shingles, lighting fixtures and such — nailed to and covering its exterior, and thousands of prints and paintings stuffed inside.

He started as a wandering artist himself, a Baltimore native who started coming to the beach to sell his paintings. He found businesses that had porches or empty space where he could display his art in exchange for a percentage of his sales.

But today, he said, artists and musicians who set up on the boardwalk cause traffic jams and compete with businesses that pay property taxes and other fees that contribute to the town.

“There’s only a certain amount of space,” Kro-Art said. “People spend their lives developing businesses on the boardwalk and paying for all the permits, following all the restrictions that benefit everyone, and contributing to cleaning the boardwalk, keeping it lit and keeping it safe.

“That’s where the concern comes in,” he said, “to keep things on a fair, level playing field.”

Even Kro-Art has to laugh, though, when he remembers a particular busker several summers ago: a pole dancer who decided to perform on the boardwalk — right in front of Ocean Gallery’s webcam, actually.

“She got a lot of coverage,” he said drily. The dancer has since taken leave of the boardwalk.

“I had to cover my webcam,” Kro-Art said. “Our greatest fear was people would think we had something to do with getting her there.”

The street performers say they’re simply exercising their First Amendment rights, for tips.

“They’re trying to regulate a problem that’s not there,” said Mark Chase, a spray paint artist. “We perform a little, and we go on.”

Chase has been involved in multiple lawsuits against Ocean City, dating back to 1995, over the town’s attempts to regulate buskers. The performers sued most recently over a 2015 regulation that required them to enter a lottery every Monday at City Hall and apply for one of 33 designated spaces that they could use the following week.

“I had a space next to two big trash cans sometimes,” said Dan Bloom, a singer-songwriter who was among the plaintiffs. “Another [space] was so loud because of the carnival atmosphere, I couldn’t hear myself.”

Bloom said he’s looking forward to a summer in which he can pick his own spots — not too close to other musicians, and near benches, because in addition to his own songs he specializes in ’60s music that appeals to an older crowd that likes to sit for a spell.

He rejects the complaint that performers impede pedestrian traffic. He says the boardwalk is jammed with visitors in the summer — which of course is what everyone wants in this tourism-dependent town.

Ocean City has 7,000 year-round residents, a number that swells to 300,000 on a typical summer day. Expanding the amount of time those often free-spending visitors stay in town, and other resorts, was the reason Gov. Larry Hogan in 2016 ordered the state’s public schools to stay closed through Labor Day. He cited a study that said such a move could generate an additional $74.3 million in economic activity.

Greg Shockley, who owns the Shoreham Hotel and its Shenanigan’s Irish Pub and Grille on the boardwalk at 4th Street, said the recent issues with street performers and the wannabe topless women are a byproduct of Ocean City’s popularity.

“People see a lot of people coming to Ocean City in the summer, and they can get the attention they are seeking,” he said. “It’s just the way the world is.”

Shockley said that any cause, whether it’s topless sunbathing or boardwalk busking, quickly spreads far and wide as a result of social media.

“It’s the great bathroom wall now,” he said.

Shockley said he’s “very protective” of the town’s image and is glad city officials continue to defend it in court. From what he can tell from bookings at his hotel, the controversies don’t seem to have had an effect so far. He anticipates “a normal season.”

What affects his business most, actually, is something neither he nor anyone else can control.

“If the weather is good the next four months,” Shockley said, “we’ll be good.”

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

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